© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Corpus Christi and surrounding area designated a World War II Heritage City

The USS Lexington Museum in Corpus Christi
The USS Lexington Museum in Corpus Christi

Dec. 7 marks the anniversary of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces, a day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt consigned to history as a “date which will live in infamy.” The attack led the United States to enter World War II on the side of the Allied Forces, and the national mobilization to support the war effort was rapid and far-reaching.

Many cities and towns across the U.S. were transformed during those early years of the war. Families moved to new or developing industrial centers to take jobs in factories to help the war effort. Port cities became increasingly important for shipping soldiers, cargo and supplies overseas. Now, the National Park Service has begun recognizing those efforts with a recent program designating what it calls American World War II Heritage Cities.

This week Texas entered into the program with the selection of Corpus Christi – home to the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station and the USS Lexington – and the surrounding area recognized for their contributions to the war effort.

Residents, veterans and city and county leaders gather to announce Corpus Christi and the surrounding area's designation as a World War II Heritage City on Tuesday.

According to Nina Nixon-Mendez, associate director of development services for the City of Corpus Christi, the effort included both Nueces and Kleberg counties and encompassed the area, presenting a wealth of historical information and data showcasing the community’s contributions to the war effort.

“We outlined our community’s contributions to the World War, to homefront efforts, and then our achievements to preserve World War history like the Lexington,” Nixon-Mendez said.

Along with the USS Lexington and Naval Air Station, Nixon-Mendez says, the Coastal Bend area is home to over 10 historical markers commemorating the area’s historical ties to WWII, including a radar station on Ward Island, coastal defenses at Aransas Pass, a German POW camp and the American GI Forum. An even further wealth of history has been preserved in area libraries, archives and museums.

Military and civilians mobilize

According to retired Navy Capt. Steve Banta, now executive director of the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay, at the time the U.S. entered the war, the Corpus Christi area had already begun to be included in expanded military effort.

A machinist is pictured in the Assembly and Repair Dept. of the Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi in this photo dated August 1942.

“So in 1940, actually even the summer before that, Congress had appropriated funds to turn an area north of Flour Bluff into what would eventually become Naval Air Station Corpus Christi,” Banta said. “And so that expansion occurred where the base opened in March of 1941, and the first class ended up graduating in November. And then December 1941, you know, Pearl Harbor, that obviously took everybody by surprise. But this community was already turning into what eventually would become a very large training area and also just a great place for military support.”

That support included a great deal of mobilization by civilians in the area. According to Nixon-Mendez, aside from local involvement that garnered the $2 million that provided an incentive to establish the naval air station, thousands of locals went to work at the base, the Civil Defense Corps, and the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (W.A.V.E.S). The Coastal Bend Area also contributed a great deal of financial support to the war effort.

“We also were engaged in war bond drives here,” Nixon-Mendez said, “and these drives occurred at our local theaters, there were parades, there were local organizations that promoted the sale of these war bonds. And amazingly, our community raised $50 million to support the war.”

The USS Lexington docked in Corpus Christi Bay, now a museum open to the general public.

Aside from the Naval Air Station, perhaps the most iconic example of the Corpus Christi area’s WWII legacy is the USS Lexington – commissioned during the war and leaving service in 1991 as the longest-serving Essex-class aircraft carrier, according to Banta.

From there, the Lexington has remained stationed in the Corpus Christi bay, now a museum with several attractions that showcase its history – including its tour of duty in the Pacific during the war.

According to Banta, the Lexington’s ties to the city go back.

“Over 35,000 naval aviators were trained here during World War II,” Banta said. “The majority of those aviators were going out to land on aircraft carriers during the war, and the vast majority of U.S. aircraft carriers were used in the Pacific Fleet because, you know, the European side of the war was mainly land war.

“So with the aircraft carriers predominantly in the Pacific and aviators coming from Corpus Christi, of course the Lexington was in the Pacific – CV16. And you can easily show that the community support here that supported Naval Air Station Corpus Christi and others in order to do that training, those folks got that support here. And then they moved on and they were landing and they were stationed on the USS Lexington. There was already a connection to the Lex back then, even when people weren’t thinking about it that way.”

A U.S. Navy Landing Signal Officer guides a Grumman F3F training plane to the runway at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas.

An enduring legacy

The American WWII Heritage Cities program was authorized by Congress in 2019, with the secretary of the interior given the authority to name one city from each state and territory with the honor. Wilmington, N.C., was the first added to the program in 2020.

For Nixon-Mendez, to have Corpus Christi as the sole inductee in Texas showcases the city’s strong ties to the WWII mobilization effort and lays the foundation to further preserve that legacy.

“Our hope is, number one, that it shares the interesting history of our area related to World War II,” Nixon-Mendez said. “You know, I really think the growth and development of our city was jumpstarted by World War II. And I hope it lays the groundwork for continued heritage tourism efforts in the Coastal Bend area.”